Kristi Carter on the sacred and deviant art of poetry

You are the author of the full-length collection Cosmovore (Aqueduct Press, 2017), the chapbook Daughter Shaman Sings Blood Anthem (Porkbelly Press, 2017), and the forthcoming chapbook Red & Vast (dancing girl press, 2018), each of which address feminism, embodiment, and politics and boldly confront issues of rape, sexual violence, and abuse. Emily Dickinson writes, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant” and in considering Dickinson’s words and the art of truth-telling in poetry, here Jill Bialosky notes strategies poets use to truth tell such as persona, narrative and story, and poetic form. She writes, “This process of locating the reader in more than one place, the ‘slant’ view, the unexpected relationship, is a means by which the poet, and therefore her reader, gain access to knowledge that is greater than what is directly expressed in the poem” (22). Talk about truth-telling and poetic strategy in poetry. What methods do you find useful to re-create truths that enable the poem to explore larger social phenomena that are often silenced, overlooked, and/or distorted?

The idea of coming at something sideways–or slantways–to tell a truth that’s more accurate than just facts is something I was really preoccupied with when I was writing Cosmovore. At that time, I was living in Oklahoma and personhood laws were being drawn up to further limit access to abortion. It seemed to me that the people around me (with the exceptions of my partner Alan and my advisor, poet Lisa Lewis) were unbothered by the implications of what those new pieces of legislation would mean for the lives of women, especially those already living below the poverty line, which is not an insignificant portion of Oklahoma’s population.

Having been long-enamored with art dealing with the surreal as well as art that is transparently political made the persona the book is named for emerge naturally. The old idea that women were property in the heartland made a literal inversion of that spring forth–a woman who could consume instead of being consumed, a woman who was grotesque, a woman who could destroy but not produce, and thus, as Monique Wittig would remind us, a being that might not be a woman at all.

Since then, the speaker of my projects has been much closer to ‘me,’ but that dynamism with ‘reality’ persists. What I mean is that we see over and over certain voices being less privileged than others, censored more than others, and as a young poet I was injured by the smokescreen that masquerades as criticism that art containing political truths of those marginalized identities is somehow less proficient, less elevated, less refined. So it becomes a question of not “what is “truth” or “reality””?” but “who is willing to listen?” This is something Melissa Febos has written about in regards to why airing trauma is seen as “subversion,” and she challenges that smokescreen I mentioned by noting that in fact it is the act of recognizing the significance of one’s trauma that subverts that elitist silence.

But as direct and stark as my work is, there’s no denying that magic, myth, and those other ancient metaphorical vehicles of storytelling can be the slant-tool for me.  This has to do with my life-long fascination with and study of trauma. The self is made of fragments, but between those fragments, the shadow and relief emphasizes both the discord and connection. That’s readily visible in the elasticity of narrative.

Discussing the work of women writers who write about violence in her essay “Women Writing Violence,” Aimee Parkison writes, “Doing violence to language can be freeing for the writer and the reader in poetry and prose. Revising and revisiting traditional cultural narrative renderings of violence against women and all peoples can lead to cultural discoveries through literary experiments. Language is full of surprises and forms, and if violence becomes a structure or an institution of language and culture, there is much to be said for the freedom of creative destruction” (114). Your work reflections on abusive relationships, the cycle of abuse, mental illness, PTSD, and rape. Take these lines from your collections:

Even then, at the peak of love,
you were looking down your fist
at me, (Cosmovore)

My mother is certain
a man will cut me,
so she takes off my skin…

With the mop, I erase. Fact:
my daughter will be cut. (Daughter Shaman Sings Blood Anthem)

And when he dragged me into the woods
to a blanket he’d prepared….
But I did pretend, as he made me choke him
down… (Red & Vast)

Talk about your reflections and discoveries writing violence. By engaging in literary experiments that explore personas, cultural experiences, and silenced narratives, what does the language of violence offer women writers? Talk about the work of the poem.

Parkison’s acute observation reminds us that language is often not enough to draw attention to the voices of the marginalized who have always testified to their trauma(s) to little avail. By focusing on women, we have to reconcile that barbed gift of questions that intersectionality gives us: what is it women have in common with other marginalized groups?, what makes them special?, who are “women”?, all culminating in, why is violence needed for women to be heard? Feminists have long been pointing to the fact that women endure violence, that women make up a part of most marginalized identities, and that violence toward women remains systematically reinforced in part due to its sublimation. If the violence is ignored, then the silence that stems from ignorance creates more violence.

Going off this, I find over and over that the poem works best as a crystallized moment, an entity that mirrors the fragmentation that characterizes the waking moments and mindset (the reality AND the perspective) of survivors. The sensation of being detached from what is normative or mainstream compounds one’s ire at being ignored even if unwounded. It’s an old problem, this idea that gets recycled in every generation of poetry where there are voices that will not submit to the party line “you might as well shut up since no one wants to hear it” and in response to those rebels, there are privileged voices contending that politics and craft should be seen as independent. We know this is laughable as the craft is often ground-breaking in and of itself, in addition to the provocative, necessary content.

When I am writing, all this is simmering in some chthonic place, and it’s after the poem is drafted (and revised) that the opportunity for reflection might present itself. The process of revision is much like the process of healing in that it requires re-visitation and mindful compartmentalization. Cathy Caruth argues that the remembering perpetuates the trauma, so perhaps writing is a purposeful history-building in which violence must be referenced and replicated in language. With the recent interest in survivor stories in the media, there has been a conversation about Anita Hill’s sacrifices and bravery in the political genesis of the #MeToo movement. That white women’s tales are privileged over other testimonies should never be ignored. Parkison draws attention to the way that art can amplify the witness of violence that is too readily dismissed or forgotten in everyday language. The poem is not just a testifying more loudly than our normal venues will permit us, but a zone in which our voices are more severe than our bodies might let them be. The body is not left behind, but it becomes a living monument to survival.

Your research interests include motherhood, feminism, and reproductive rights (a good description of that is here). I’m interested in the ways scholarship and teaching influence, inspire, and feed creative work. Your poem “The Cosmology of the Daughter who Emerged from an Unrecognizable Place” has this wonderful passage on the power of new insight:

Not many can stand
at the mouth of discovery
without the slim flume of lightning
that travels down the spine,
the fear that something new could be known. (Daughter Shaman Sings Blood Anthem)

Can you talk about inspiration and the craft of writing? What brings you to the poem—scholarly work, pedagogy, reading/hearing poetry, a combination, something else?

This is tough. I think of so many things with this question but the biggest is my understanding of how the poem functions in this life we try so doggedly to organize. The poem mirrors that struggle by acting as one of the clearest, most concise, condensed nexuses of our ideas while, simultaneously, embodying contradiction.

To some extent we can say this human effort to categorize or organize chaos surfaces in everything, for example, teaching parallels this in that as a teacher one tries to help students wrangle their own writing process without disrupting the mystery and surprise that makes writing viable. But the poem gives us that vein through which the most important messages can pass, that’s why poetry is both sacred and deviant at the same time.

The poem you picked, The Cosmology of the Daughter who Emerged from an Unrecognizable Place”, is a site of this conflict; as the speaker wonders about what ‘history’ means in the larger world, but also as a woman, she does not act as the vessel of maintaining a familial history, a role that patriarchy has historically regulated women to. As liberating as that might be, it has its setbacks, and those are meditated on by the speaker. In a poem, compartmentalizing larger existential issues is possible in a way that life sometimes doesn’t offer. However, the depth of the poem prevents it from becoming a spreadsheet of one’s own history.

So returning to your question, I would say my writing does occur in response to a combination of those processes (scholarly work, pedagogy, reading/hearing poetry) but also in simultaneous acknowledgment that the functionality of each is distinct as well as inextricably linked to the others. The flint for me in reacting to a text is likely what so many writers respond to, some mixture of clarity, verve and distance in the entity of the piece I’m reading.

When we write, part of the readability comes from the access the reader has into the piece and the particular character of that access. The more the reader can trust, the better they can listen. The less the writer has to worry about being heard, the more they can say.

How do you define chapbook? I get asked this a lot by people who aren’t afraid to reveal they don’t know–mainly endearing, ambitious undergrads. What I was taught in my MFA is that it’s simply a shorter collection of poems. That definition seems to be in flux though as hybrid chapbooks make amazing use of the ultra-condensed brevity of the form. I also have been seeing a lot more art object chaps wherein the bonus to the written work is some visual aesthetic to the chapbook in an of itself. For example, Nicci Mechler, the editor at Porkbelly Press made my cover so it features copper ink. I love the liminality and flexibility of the chapbook as a form, and I hope it serves as an enticement to readers of longer works, as well as something more digestible to those getting their toes wet as literary readers.

What chapbooks or chapbook poets have impacted your writing the most? The first chapbook I ever read was Ioanna-Veronika Warwick’s No Longer Mine (1993, Sow’s Ear) when I was working as a librarian during my undergrad. Plainly, it stunned me. Now, looking back, I think it’s likely the power of Warwick’s poetry in such a condensed medium acted as a kind of lifeline to undergrad me. Since then I still read lots of different chaps, mainly by women and POC and mainly from small presses.

Your chapbook wish: That a collection as a chap is sturdy and intriguing enough to stand on its own, but healthy enough to gather the interest needed to be published as a full-length!

Chapbook Bio: Kristi Carter is the author of Daughter Shaman Sings Blood Anthem (Porkbelly Press) and Cosmovore (Aqueduct Press). Her chapbook Red and Vast is forthcoming from dancing girl press. Her poems have appeared in publications including So to Speak, poemmemoirstory, CALYX, Hawaii Review, and Nimrod. Her work examines of the intersection of gender and intergenerational trauma in 20th Century poetics. She holds a PhD from University of Nebraska Lincoln and an MFA from Oklahoma State University.





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